The Great Horse of the Middle Ages

Pentheselia Amazon Queen

A heavy horse galloping with swinging mane and flowing tail, in ceremonial barding or armour, is a magnificent sight and one that reminds many of us of the drama and romance of the ‘great’ horse of the Middle Ages (476 AD – 1453). 

The ‘Medieval’ horse is a vision increasingly gracing our screens large and small, as our global entertainment media reflects an on-going fascination with the so-called Dark Ages, from horse-based epics from A Knight’s Tale, Lord of the Rings, Transformers, Game of Thrones, series on Norse and Viking cultures to a trove of similarly themed computer games.

At the visual centre of these productions is the knight on a horse, but, what were these horses really like and how different were they to those of today?

Studying the medieval horse has wider implications for our view of the era. While the genetics are lost or changed, art can tell us quite a bit about what horses looked like and how they were used in the Middle Ages. The horse in art in the Middle Ages was a lens through which ideas about gender, class, but above all, morals and knightly virtues were shaped and expressed.

“For people of the Middle Ages, horses were crucial; they were integral to war, agriculture and transport, and were even used as currency to pay debts and taxes”

For people of the Middle Ages horses were crucial; they were integral to war, agriculture and transport, and were even used as currency to pay debts and taxes. This closeness to daily human life was reflected in writings from song cycles, chronicles, tales and manuals asserting that horses could feel ‘human’ emotions, especially loyalty, sorrow, and eagerness for battle. Thus the horse-human connection differed considerably from our own time.

A typical battle horse in this time period would have stood at about 14-16 hands tall and weighed about 1,300- 1,500 pounds. They were not tall, but rather they were strong and powerful.

Scholars doubt whether there is direct ‘through line’ to modern draught breeds. Certainly, it’s hard to link modern to medieval breeds as horses then were named by the jobs they did, or their place of origin. Moreover, since only the aristocracy and the monastic orders could read and write, records of bloodlines and studbooks are rare.

The ‘destrier’ was the term for the type of knightly horse we think of as emblematic in the medieval period. ‘Destriers’ which were the most valuable type, were primarily widely used in war and jousting.

To convey a sense of what they looked like, imagine a modern day, exceptionally heavily-built Andalusian. They were highly trained, and could cost up to eighty pounds in the currency of the period; which was a fortune, considering labourers earned at most two pounds a year income.

Recent research undertaken at the Museum of London, using literary, pictorial and archaeological sources, suggests war horses (including destriers) averaged 14-15 hands, and were distinguished from a riding horse by their strength, musculature and training, rather than their size.

Stallions were preferred by most for battle for their strength and aggression. Additionally their rounded, muscled body type is indicated by their armour – with 12th century horse armour, or barding, typically being quite curved to allow for large neck crests.

The Knight

The illustration of the Knight, from the Ellesmere version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, shows us a good example of a destrier. The Knight is the first character we meet on the ‘road’ before the night of group storytelling, and he is about the only one Chaucer presents as fully admirable.

The Knight by ChaucerFrom the illustration, we get the sense that both horse and rider are a well-seasoned pair of fighters. We are told that they have taken part in some fifteen crusades in many countries and also fought for one pagan leader against another. We see the Knight’s tunic is still stained from the marks of his armour.  The horse has two brands, an ‘M’ for ‘military’ on his neck, and a possibly Italian breeder’s mark on his haunch.

This horse would have seen many strange lands; he would have been, in the parlance of today, literally ‘bomb-proof’. He would have undergone many sea journeys as well.

Warhorses like this one would have travelled with their knights on overseas campaigns and in fact had their own special ships or ‘dromonds’ that transported them to battle grounds separately from men and supplies. The Bayeux Tapestry [1070s] shows a dromond transporting the horses of William the Conqueror’s Norman army across the Channel to the Battle of Hastings, and scholars have pointed out the smiling mouths and pricked ears of the equines seem to suggest they were enjoying their journey.

The artist who illuminated this manuscript of Chaucer’s Tales moreover seems also to suggest that the partnership between horse and rider has been deeply forged by their overseas service; the knight sits easily in the saddle, riding one-handed, with the reins looped, yet the horse is collected underneath him, one ear swivelled back in well-mannered attentiveness. The Knight’s right hand is raised in greeting his fellow pilgrims. The sprezzatura or studied carelessness of his riding, was (as is always true in horsemanship), hard-won through continuous, consistent and structured training and practice. As Jürg Gassman tells us:

[Knights] had to be able to bring their mounts into collection, on the correct lead, on command; they then needed to maintain formation in a collected canter for an extended period until contact with the enemy, execute a turn on command while wielding their weapons, and do all that over broken ground, not in the manicured manège, and while under fire.

The Knight’s destrier has a keen, bright ‘let me at it’ expression in his eyes which is matched by the modest, alert expression on the Knight’s face. The illustrator here conveys Chaucer’s favourable presentation of the Knight as one of the few trustworthy characters in the Tale.

‘He was of sovereign value in all eyes.

And though so much distinguished, he was wise

And in his bearing modest as a maid.

… He was a true, a perfect gentle-knight.’

Pentheselia, Amazonian queen

In the beautifully illustrated French translation of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, or Book of Famous Women, we see the ancient Greek Amazon, Penthesilea, riding a magnificent black destrier in collected canter to the left (this article’s feature image). Her horse also appears to be poking out his tongue and whether this is a response to too much curb rein, or a challenge to the enemy remains a mystery!

Penthesilea was a legendary woman warrior who also was said to be responsible for the invention of the battle-axe. In mythology, she became queen of the Amazons upon the death of her sister Hippolyta.

She first appears in art in the eight century Cycle of Troy, by Arctinus of Miletus. The story goes that the Amazons led by Penthesilea and her sisters, fought Achilles in the defence of Troy. After a day of distinguishing herself on the battlefield, Penthesilea confronts Achilles. Achilles kills her, but after taking off her helmet, he falls in love with her.

Boccaccio’s fourteenth century compendium De Mulieribus Claris was the first collection of biographies in Western literature that was devoted to famous women.

Penthesilea’s story is told and readers are asked to admire her intelligence, skill in battle, and courage. She is somewhat of a role model for our times and appears still in popular culture. In fact, Star Wars’ ‘Princess Leia’ was a variation on her name.

More recently, Penthesilea appears as a minor supporting character and comrade-in-arms to Gal Gadot’s eponymous heroine in 2017’s Marvel film, Wonder Woman, and she was played by American cross-fit athlete Brooke Ence.

Thus, Penthesilea is a perennial example of how with the right upbringing, training and talent, women can easily be the soldierly equivalents or superiors to men.

The artist illustrating this copy of De Mulieribus Claris was careful to show us a contemporary fourteenth century Penthesilea, on a contemporary war-horse. Neither horse nor woman are heavily armoured; she wears an articulated plate mail over her chest, which is decorated with three huge jewels. Her armour has chain mail arms, and is worn with a heavy belt and skirt. Her horse wears an open metal chanfron over his face, with a magnificent red plume, and elaborate gold decorated reins, breast plate, and croupier.

She is shown getting into position to fire her arrows. According to legend, at the Battle of Troy she killed many Achaeans with her bow. Her end came though, when Achilles speared her through her armour. Penthesilea, as if with foreknowledge of her death, casts her eyes to the sky, while her destrier meets our gaze, in his own form of challenge.

Barbara of Celje as Venus

Barbara of Celje on a courserThe other type of war-horse in the medieval period was the Courser or Charger. These were the slighter, lighter in build, swiftest and popular in combat. In the image from the German military engineer Konrad Kyeser’s 15th century book on military technology, Bellifortis, we see a good example of one.

Exiled to Bohemia in 1402 to 1403, Kyeser reportedly flagged down some passing German illustrators, commissioned the images from them, and sat to write this extraordinary work. Strangely to the modern reader, it combines discussion of new and experimental military technology as well as astrology and sorcery. Leonardo da Vinci was apparently conversant with it, and based some of his military machines on its designs.

In the illustration, we see Barbara of Celje on a courser. Barbara was born in 1392 and died 11 July 1451. She was the Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Hungary and Bohemia by marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund. Here in a flowing blue gown she represents the planet Venus.

Hailing from modern day Slovenia, Barbara was also known as the ‘Black Queen’, for her habit of wearing black, and of murdering townsfolk, and she is still both feared and revered in this area, especially around her castle in Medvedgrad, a tourist attraction today.

Here, Barbara is portrayed bearing a standard or war flag. Female standard-bearers were not unknown in her time, one of the periods most loyal and brave being ‘Big Margot’ bearer of the Flemish standard, who fell at the Battle of Westrozebeke in 1382. Of course we might also think, of Jeanne d’Arc, the archetypal medieval female warrior.

Barbara’s martial role here was quite appropriate since she was actively involved in politics and economy of her times, independently administering her large feudal fiefdoms and taxes, and was instrumental in creating the chivalric Order of the Dragon.

Barbara rides skilfully and in a balanced, upright position. She appears to be partly naked underneath a novel kind of petyral or equine chest armour, which attached together at the horse’s chest, extends on both side up her legs. Her heel, with a long spur, can be seen peeking out underneath it near the chest of the horse. Hers was not an unusual leg position for military riding – the “a la brida” style was the typical technique of heavy cavalry and was characterized by the use of long stirrups and a built-up padded cantle to provide support for the lower back in case of a lance blow to the front of the body. This unusual petyral would have also allowed a knight to wear more light mail rather than heavy plate armour.

Her grey courser is cantering uphill, and he looks keen. He’s being ridden from her seat only, as she has one hand on her hip and the other bearing the standard. He’s relatively long-legged and light-bodied, showing only a little feathering around his fetlocks, indicating he is a courser rather than a destrier. He has a gentle expression, which, when read with the happy, dreamy look on Barbara’s face, underscores the idea that this is indeed Venus the Goddess of Love rather than War. Yet this remains a curious image of medieval women’s agency and presence in a military context.

There is no doubt about the firm attachment between knight and horse. Though capable of great cruelty, medieval people formed sympathetic kinship with their animals. Bartholomew Anglicus, a thirteenth-century scholastic, noted that horses do indeed have feelings like humans. He proposed that man and steed are therefore bound together, or “medlied” [muddled] emotionally.

Correspondingly, it’s long been thought that knights rode ‘without any sophistication’ … but was this true? Surely shoulder-in, laterals, collection and the lower ‘airs above the ground’ would have all been required in mounted warfare, which was more like a ridden form of fencing than jousting.

Recent collaborations between scholars of the medieval period, and horse trainers such as that between the UK’s Jason Kingsley, and Holland’s Arne Koetz suggest that, far from being un-sophisticated, knights had to be very good riders. These two horsemen, and history graduates with an interest in dressage and mounted combat have tried riding some of the training exercises in mediaeval cavalry manuals. Doing these successfully required, in their view, extensive training, which suggests there was an elevated equitation culture in those times.

This indicates that the classical knowledge from the Ancient Greeks about dressage and haut école was not lost, but revived in pockets, even before Duarte of Portugal’s unfinished Livro do Cavalgar, (1430s), the first riding manual produced in Europe since Xenophon.

This makes sense if we consider the point of knightly riding in battle was to vanquish other mounted knights using a variety of weapons in partnership with a highly mobile, supple horse.

In another hundred years or so, the great riding masters and their theory manuals make their appearance; Grisone, Pluvinel, de la Guérinière etcetera. However it’s fascinating to think how so much of their later knowledge about horsemanship might have been put into practice many centuries beforehand.


  1. Bachrach, Bernard S. Caballus et Caballarius in Medieval Warfare. From: The Study of Chivalry: Resources and Approaches (1988) Web. 1988. The average height for a north-western European male in the 9th C was 173.4 cm (i.e. 5’8”). That declined to about 167 cm (5’5”) in the 17th and 18th C. Not until the early 20th century did height recover to 9th century levels. Armour in museums looks small, but it was close-fitting and lighter than is commonly assumed. The war horses of the period were slightly smaller than we’re used to today, but that was mainly due to the very practical problems of campaign logistics and the problem of feeding and watering extremely large horses, which were insurmountable considering armies had to carry all their horse feed and water. This job was done by ‘sumpter’ or pack horses.
  2. Emma Herbert-Davies, The Cultural Representation of the Horse in Late Medieval England: Status and Gender, Undergraduate dissertation, BA Hons History, School of History University of Leeds 2009 p 25.
  3. Ibid. p 26.
  4. 8. Smiling horses. Accessed 25 January 2020.
  5. Jürg Gassmann, ‘Combat Training for Horse and Rider in the Early Middle Ages’, Acta Periodica Duellatorum volume 6, issue 1 (2018) p 87.
  6.’s_Famous_Women. Accessed 25 January 2020.
  7. Other types included the Palfrey, [ridden by those of higher status, clerics and ladies]. These were finer boned, comfortable to ride. Then there was the all-rounder or ‘Rouncey’ typically used for daily riding, farm work and as pack horses. Rounceys would have been comparable, some say, to a Galloway-sized Welsh Cob; affordable for a poorer knight, good doers, sensible, hardy, and able to turn their hoof to a variety of jobs.
  8. Big Margot was banner-bearer for merchant populist leader Philip van Artevelde, together they were trampled to death by their own army, fighting Charles VI and this particular battle was one of the inspirations for Game of Thrones.
  9. Women in the Medieval period were significantly implicated in war, whether they themselves or the men around them liked it or not. Whether as protagonists in military engagement, fund-raisers or victims of sieges, captures and rapes. ‘Despite all the hostility displayed by contemporary male writers, women throughout England, France, and the Holy Land were frequently involved with military events in a range of different ways’. ‘An Entirely Masculine Activity’? Women and War in the High and Late Middle Ages Reconsidered By James Michael Illston Master of Arts in History Department of History University of Canterbury 2009
  10. On another page of Bellifortis, Barbara’s husband King Sigismund is shown similarly galloping on a horse, holding a flag, and wearing the same strange scalloped leg armour. It looks to be an extended experimental design for a ‘peytral’, or horse chest armour, part of the ‘barding’ of which extends up the rider’s leg. It curves up around the rider’s lower abdomen, presumably leaving the leg free of armour to be better apply the aids.

This article appeared in the March-April edition of Horses and People Magazine

Dr Georgina Downey

An art historian who's published extensively on the domestic interior, Dr Georgina Downey is the human of Classic, the dressage schoolmaster and Angas, the Cairn terrier. In this regular Horses and People in Art column, she provides a unique equine-centred perspective to famous equestrian artworks.


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